getting to graduation

New York City’s English learners often struggle to graduate, but here’s how some schools buck that trend

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Students in AP Chemistry at High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies are taught in English and Mandarin.

As students settle into their AP chemistry class, the teacher gets through some housekeeping announcements in English and then switches to Mandarin to begin the day’s lesson.

The class is taught in both languages, to a group of students made up mostly of current or former English Language Learners — as is their school, High School for Dual Language and Asian Studies on the Lower East Side.

Principal Li Yan says that challenging courses like this college-level class are one of the key reasons students at his school do so well. Less than 51 percent of current and former English Language Learners graduated citywide last year, far below the city average of about 73 percent. At Dual Language high school, where roughly 80 percent of students are current or former English learners, almost every senior earned a diploma last year.

“You can’t automatically assume they can’t do things. They can,” Yan said. “You have to have high expectations.”

About 13 percent of New York City’s 1.1 million students are considered English learners — a group of students that can be among the toughest to serve. Last year, while the dropout rate for the city overall declined, the dropout rate among English learners jumped to 27 percent — an increase of more than 5 percentage points from the year before.

But Dual Language high school and a handful of other schools across the city manage to buck that trend, providing valuable lessons for how to better serve these students.

For instance, Dual Language high school tries to enroll a healthy mix of native English and Chinese speakers to make the dual-language model work. Dual-language schools split instruction into two languages, so math class may be taught in English one day and in Mandarin the next.

Asian students in New York City are already more likely to graduate than their peers. But Dual Language high school pays special attention to make sure English learners don’t get caught in red tape that could keep them from earning a diploma. The school’s program is set up so students can move easily to higher-level English courses, even mid-year, rather than getting stuck in classes their language skills have outgrown. Schedules are constantly monitored and changed to meet students’ needs.

“This is important,” Yan said. “You can’t get to senior year and say, ‘This kid needs five English classes.’”

In research circles, dual-language programs are often singled out as a highly effective way to teach English while also allowing students to maintain their native language.
In New York City, however, a group of schools has shown remarkable success using a different approach.

The Internationals Network for Public Schools is a nonprofit that helps run more than a dozen schools in New York City, catering exclusively to recently arrived immigrant students. Last year, its schools’ average graduation rate was 74 percent, according to Director Joe Luft. That’s higher than the citywide rate for all students.

Students at Internationals schools learn both subject content and English in the same classes in what’s called an “integrated” model. The teachers work together across subjects to make sure students learn the vocabulary they need before conducting a science experiment or taking on a new math concept.

“Language and content are inseparable,” Luft said. “You need to teach them real high school content. You can’t wait until they know enough English to do that. You have to do both simultaneously.”

Group work and projects are also core to the network’s teaching strategy. Students are deliberately mixed based on grade level and individual strengths, ensuring they have as many opportunities as possible to practice their language skills and learn from each other.

They are encouraged to communicate the best way they can — even if that means speaking in their native language. Though it might seem counterintuitive, letting students draw on their existing language to express themselves and understand classroom commands or content is actually an effective strategy, said Miriam Eisenstein Ebsworth, a director in New York University Steinhardt’s division of Multilingual Multicultural Studies.

“If you stick somebody in a total immersion situation, how would you know what’s going on?” she asked. “It’s traumatic, it’s unhelpful and it really slows them down.”

Internationals Network schools focus only on the needs of English learners. But Robert F. Kennedy Community High School in Queens is proof that a typical high school can also serve these students well.

Robert F. Kennedy is an “educational option” school, meaning it intentionally admits students across a range of academic abilities. As a result, the student body is closely aligned with the demographics of the city as a whole. Eleven percent of the students are English learners, and among them are Spanish, Chinese and Arabic speakers. Eighty-six percent of its current or former English learners graduated last year.

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Robert F. Kennedy Community High School Principal Anthony Barbetta and Assistant Prinicpal Maria Toskos

Like Internationals schools, Robert F. Kennedy uses integrated instruction, where English language and content are taught side by side. The school puts an emphasis on including English learners in sports, clubs and school celebrations.

“They need to feel part of the community,” said Maria Toskos, an assistant principal who helps oversee services for English learners at the school.

Robert F. Kennedy has been able to avoid problems that plague other schools statewide. State rules, enacted last year, require that teachers in integrated settings either be certified in language instruction, or work as a co-teacher with a colleague who has the credential.

But there are consistently language teacher shortages. Co-teaching is costly and requires teachers to work together closely — and well.

But Robert F. Kennedy has a stable of dual-certified teachers. In co-teaching cases, before teaching assignments are made, Barbetta said he asks teachers for their placement preferences — and the school makes an effort to honor those requests.

“There’s really buy-in,” said Principal Anthony Barbetta. “We’re fortunate.”

New York City has come under scrutiny for how well it serves English learners, and recently announced it will open 68 new language programs. The city hopes to have every English learner in a bilingual program by 2018.

Still, people who work with English learners or study their progress say better data is needed to help more students make it to graduation. Some advocates objected recently when Chancellor Carmen Fariña seemed to downplay the city’s role in that process.

Ebsworth, the NYU professor, said it’s hard to predict who will earn a diploma and who won’t. Each English learner is unique: Some come from their countries with a solid academic foundation, others come with little or no formal schooling. They may have some experience with the English language, or none at all.

To better understand how to serve them, experts want to learn more about those who don’t graduate. Are they stumbling on specific exams? Are students with less formal schooling more likely to drop out? What role does a family’s economic needs play?

“We can’t tell what the outcomes are being influenced by,” she said. “There’s a big problem with the data.”


Memphis candidate says no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s turnaround district is no longer under consideration, the state Department of Education confirmed Thursday.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat on Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him and said that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second interview with McQueen. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked at the news, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists for the position.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration were: Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools — the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.